Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ Packs a Timely Wallop

“Mister (Lewis D. Wheeler), Moses (Kadahj Bennett), and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) in Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ – Photos by Nile Scott Studios

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

Even before ‘Pass Over’ begins, as theatergoers blithely check emails and jockey for their seats, the actors make clear theirs is a production that will claim one’s full attention and engagement. Two young scruffy black men, dressed in hoodies, oversized footwear and hats, prowl around the sparse stage, demanding eye contact and flirting with the women in the front row. By the time the house lights go down and the stage lights go up, these two have established an uneasy arms-length rapport with the audience.

Moses (Kadahj Bennett) and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) hang out on their street corner under the watchful eye of a lone street light, to which they seem to be tethered by an invisible leash. They pass their unemployed time talking about their hopes and dreams, waiting for a sign that their life is about to start in earnest. They count off the names of those unarmed friends and family members killed by the police – “Po-pos”- while playing a game called “Promised Land Top Ten.” They take turns naming the ten things they would like to see when they “pass over” to paradise – ranging from clean socks to a brother back from the dead – but the undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding darkens the spirit of their light-hearted banter. The threat of violence from the police looms darkly beyond the four corners of their tight quarters and it takes all their energy to keep panic at bay. Lighting bursts and menacing sound eruptions add to the unease.

 

 

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has fashioned her blistering, complex and ambitious 2019 Lortel Award winner for Outstanding Play as a sweeping landscape to address systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, slavery and the Exodus story of freedom from oppression. She uses Samuel Beckett’s absurdist canon, “Waiting for Godot,” as a stylistic framework and while familiarity with that play is not required, it doesn’t hurt.

Yet, Nwandu imbues Moses and Kitch with such humanity and personality that they are hardly absurdist symbols, but rather fully fleshed out individuals whose plights are heartbreaking. Both Bennett and Cius  give award-worthy performances that paint an intimate camaraderie through dance, verbal games and elaborate bumps. Bennett’s Moses is a pillar of discipline, strength and optimism. He is resolved to escape this dead end. “You’re going to live up to your true potential. I’m going to lead you,” he tells Kitch. Cius plays Kitch as Moses’s sweet puppy-dog younger brother, full of frenetic, unfocused energy and blinding desire to please.

The play’s two white characters are “Mister,” a wolf-like dandy off to visit his grandmother with a picnic basket, and a racist, sadistic thug of a police officer. Lewis D. Wheeler plays both with a razor sharp but impersonal crispness that is both intimidating and merciless. Both are cartoonish, flat and soulless, especially compared to Moses and Kitch.

 

 

Much has been written about the play’s use of the “n-word” and the opinions are as numerous as the critics who pen them. When Moses and Kitch use it, the term is one of endearment, companionship and solidarity. When uttered by Mister or the policeman, the term drips with venom and malevolence. What is not ambiguous is whether Nwandu intends her  generous use of the word to indicate a green light for its acceptance in contemporary speech. “Aside from the actors saying the lines of dialogue while in character, this play is in no way, shape, or form an invitation for anyone to use the n-word,” she notes in the script.

“Pass Over” is an important work by a playwright with a strong, smart, original voice, performed by an all-star cast. Anyone who values serious thought-provoking theater should not miss this  stellar production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

‘Pass Over’ – Written by Antoinette Nwandu; Directed by Monica White Ndounou; Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Design by Anna Drummond. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion through February 2.

 

‘White Christmas’ at Wang a Good Old-Fashioned Holiday Entertainment

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

From before the curtain rises until well after it has fallen, the live orchestra of ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical,’ infuses the stage and the audience at Boston’s magnificent Boch Center Wang Theatre with wholesome, happy, good vibrations. This is a grandly old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience, with tap dancing, fabulous costumes, stunning sets and, most importantly, an incomparable score by the equally incomparable Irving Berlin.

The plot is straight forward. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two World War II vets, have become partners in a song-and-dance act after the war. Looking for love, they follow Betty and Judy Haynes, a duo of beautiful singing sisters, to a gig at a Vermont lodge. By coincidence, the lodge happens to be owned by their former army commander, General Waverly, who is facing bankruptcy and loss of his property. The “boys” rally their fellow vets, and together the troops help save the General and his legacy. Along the way, of course, everyone pairs up (including the General, with his manager, Martha Watson) and the three couples seem destined to live happily ever after.

The cast is full of stand out performances, especially Lorna Luft (yes, THAT Lorna Luft, as in Judy Garland’s daughter by producer Sid Luft) as Martha. She looks like a cross between Bette Midler and Madge (the manicurist in the Palmolive dish-washing commercials who soaked her clients’ hands in the detergent) and belts out her songs like Ethel Merman. She steals every scene she is in.

David Elder (Bob) and Jeremy Benton (Phil) are splendid as the two vets as are Kelly Sheehan (Judy) and Kerry Conte (Betty) as the sisters. All four have the acting, singing and dancing chops their roles call for. As General Waverly, Conrad John Schuck brings particular sensitivity and a terrific baritone to the role.

The real stars of the show, however, are the songs, dances and ever-changing sets and costumes. The tap-dancing numbers are spectacularly entertaining, the dancers like gifts, their outfits like wrapping paper. No detail is overlooked; the lining of the men’s jackets even coordinates with their partners’ skirts, and creative lighting adds dimension and excitement.

The blockbuster numbers — “Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” and “White Christmas” — are pure fun to watch, and the simple spotlights, white smoke and dancing stars in “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” create homespun magic. “I Love A Piano,” which opens Act II, is magnificent.

The entire production feels like a magic carpet ride to a carefree, innocent bygone era of Hollywood glamor and diversion. The icing on the cake is the full company curtain call of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” complete with snow, trees, tuxedos and glamorous gowns. A sugar plum of a show, ‘White Christmas’ is guaranteed to delight the young and give their parents a vacation from the news.

‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical’ – Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by David Ives and Paul Blake; Based on the Paramount Pictures film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner; Musical Direction by Michael Horsley; Scenic Design by Anna Louizos; Scenic Adaptation by Kenneth Foy; Costume Design by Carrie Robbins; Lighting Design by Ken Billington; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano; Orchestrations by Larry Blank; Vocal and Dance Arrangements by Bruce Pomahac. Presented by Work Light Productions at the Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., through Dec. 29.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/white-christmas-2019

Trinity Rep’s ‘Fade’ – American Dream or American Betrayal?

Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) in ‘Fade.’

 

by Shelley A. Sackett

Fade, a two-person play in production on Trinity Rep’s smaller downstairs stage through January 5, is a welcome respite from the same-oldness of the usual holiday theatrical suspects. Although a bit uneven and in need of serious editing (trimming 10-15 minutes from the 100-minute intermission-less production could do wonders for its pacing), Tanya Saracho’s script is a witty and perceptive antidote to sugar plum fairies and ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

Our two characters – Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) – both work in a Hollywood television studio. When we meet Lucia, all frenetic energy and stiletto prancing, she is setting up her office, unpacking her personal effects and placing them on a bookshelf. As soon as she places the last item on the shelf, it collapses as if on cue. The first time this happens, it’s mildly amusing, if trite and predictable. The third time, however, raises red flags that the next 99 minutes may be tedious indeed.

Enter Abel, a baseball-hatted office cleaner, to everyone’s rescue. He proceeds to fix the bookcase, in a matter-of-fact and business-like manner. His laid back, laconic style makes Lucia’s staccato mannerisms seem downright manic. Lucia takes one look at him and breaks into rapid-fire Spanish, eventually punctuating her monologue with enough English for a non-Spanish speaking audience member to glean her story. She tells the mute Abel that she is a novelist from Mexico who, after waiting for the idea for her second novel to germinate, realized she needed a steadier income. Although she has no previous experience, she nonetheless landed her first job as a television writer. She worries that she is a diversity hire, questioning her abilities, and also worries about the lack of light in her dingy little office.

When Abel is unable to ignore Lucia any longer and finally speaks, he turns to her and asks a question that goes straight to the heart of the play’s message. “Why are you speaking to me in Spanish?” he inquires. “We have to be militants about speaking our mother tongue. Why don’t you speak Spanish at work?” she counters. “Because I’m American. Because this is America,” he says.

Lucia, who grew up with a maid among Mexico’s wealthy, upper echelons, assumes that Abel, a lowly janitor pushing a vacuum cleaner, must be a Latino who speaks little or no English. She sidles up to him, purring about their common roots while intoning the beginnings of an “us vs them” refrain. When it turns out Abel was born and raised in Southern California, Lucia doesn’t miss a beat. “Do you know what’s the hardest thing about being brown and being from the barrio like I am?” she asks Abel. “It’s knowing I can never be one of them.” Eventually, Lucia manages to break down Abel’s defenses by preying on this sense of their shared “otherness,” and Abel begins to relax. He tells her of his stint as a firefighter as well as his time with the Marines. He talks about his six-old-daughter and her mother. He confides his darkest and deepest secrets, unleashing years of pent-up secrecy and shame. He is grateful for her company, grateful to trust. He is a simple man, but one of true substance.

Daniel Duque-Estrada, as Abel, is economical and precise, revealing his character’s complexity through a simple gesture, a small facial expression or a perfectly placed pause. He is a member of the Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company, and his experience and talent are as obvious as they are welcome.

Lucia, on the other hand, is a fascinating study in self-absorption, cluelessness and blind ambition. Saracho has given her some of the play’s funniest lines, but also some of the most clichéd. Elia Saldana plays her at a single volume (high) and almost as a caricature of a young Latina. Think Charo, Rosie Perez and a yippy chihuahua all rolled into one and you get the idea. It’s a shame that Saldana doesn’t seem to trust her own talent. A little subtlety and nuance could go a long way in fleshing out this woman who is simultaneously humorous, manipulative, charming, mean, erotic and unfair.

Saracho raises some interesting questions and one can only hope she will go back to the drawing room one more time and trim some of the script’s detracting fat. Much of the dialogue sparkles with biting humor and insight. (The scene about Lucia’s boss asking her to talk to his maid and translate his complaint is among the play’s best). Saracho deftly tackles universal ideas about human dignity, class and life itself through the lens of two people who are the “other” both to everyone else in their office and to each other. Most importantly, she leaves the audience to ponder several thought-provoking points. Are people who share cultural backgrounds obligated to stick together? What happens when one chooses to get ahead and join the ranks of “the other,” leaving their minority brethren to fend for themselves? Is this not, after all, the quintessential American dream? Or is it rather, Saracho suggests, the quintessential American betrayal?

‘Fade’- Written by Tanya Saracho. Directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo; Set Design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr.; Costume Design by Amanda Downing Carney; Co-Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago and Ginevra Lombardo; Sound Design by David R. Molina. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street, Providence, R.I through January 5.For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/

Trinity Rep’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ More Theatrics Than Theater

Ghost of Christmas Future (Taavon Gamble) visits Scrooge (Jude Sandy) in Trinity Rep’s ‘A Christmas Carol. Photos by Mark Turek

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

 

Trinity Repertory Company’s 2019 musical version of A Christmas Carol starts out promisingly. Produced in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, Director Kate Bergstrom makes use of that venue’s intimate theater-in-the-round configuration by staging pockets of singing performers above every seat section. The pageantry of a live orchestra, quality-voiced actors in Dickensian-era costumes, and an excellent sound system is enough to enrapture a toe-tapping audience. Unfortunately, uneven performances and an over-reliance on gimmicky, ostentatious staging trickery will soon burst that magical bubble.

The story is familiar to most. It’s Christmas Eve in early 19th century London. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly, miserable businessman, essentially holds his lone clerk, Bob Cratchit, hostage. The two are probably the only people not celebrating in all of London. Outside their barely heated office, children dance and carolers serenade. When Scrooge’s niece, Frederika, enters his office to invite him to Christmas dinner with her family, Scrooge turns her down without even a “Merry Christmas.”

“You keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine,” Scrooge bellows. On his way home, the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears amidst billows of smoke and yards of clanging chains. Clearly, Marley’s ghost is suffering a doomed eternity. He warns Scrooge that three spirits will visit him on this night and that if Scrooge wants to avoid Marley’s fate, he should listen to them and heed their advice.

Scrooge is convinced Marley is a figment of his imagination until the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives. Scrooge as a youth is sad and solitary and when as a young adult, he loses his fiancée Belle because he cares more about money than her, we feel Scrooge’s present-day pain as he rehears her say, “May your money comfort you as I would have.”

Christmas Present leads Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s tiny house, where he learns Bob’s young crippled son, Tiny Tim, will die unless his future changes. A visit to Frederika’s family celebration reveals that their favorite after-dinner game is ridiculing none other than their dear old Uncle Scrooge. It is the future Scrooge fears most, and after witnessing what lies ahead, he vows to absorb the lessons the spirits have shown him and change while he still has time. When he wakes up the next day, he immediately declares, “I will not be the man I was. I will make amends.”

There are some terrific performances by Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company members Timothy Crowe (Schoolmaster and Joe the Tavern Proprietor) and Rachael Warren (Fezziwig and The Ghost of Christmas Present). Their acting would stand out in a vacuum, but by comparison to Jude Sandy (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Ricardy Fabre (Bob Cratchit), it is a palpable and welcome relief. Sandy is tragically miscast in a part that has him in nearly every scene of a two-plus hour show. He plays Scrooge two ways: as loud, flat and belligerent (most of Act I); and, in reaction to the spirits, as loud, flat and trembling. His voice seems incapable of nuance.

Fabre is neither offensive nor annoying; he is simply bland in a role that should evoke pathos and empathy. Both could benefit from a few workshops with their two veteran colleagues.

On the bright side, Taavon Gamble’s choreography (especially the pewter mug-slamming number) and Michael Rice’s musical direction of orchestra and singers (the accordion playing in Christmas Present is delightful) give the musical a joyful lift in a production burdened by darkness. The staging tricks, such as Marley and his motley crew emerging from their hell hole and the flying bed of Christmas Past, feel like eye candy trying to distract the audience from noticing the overwhelmingly second-rate feel to the production.

In 1966, Trinity Repertory received substantial funds from the newly founded National Endowment for the Arts to launch its landmark Project Discovery program, which allowed high school students from all over the state to attend professional live theater for free. I was a 9th grade Classical High School freshman, and Adrian Hall’s masterful use of scaffolding and theater-in-the-round blew my 14-year-old mind. It was a peek through a keyhole to a world of pure wonder. Alas, that fairy dust was nowhere to be found last Wednesday night, spectacular theatrics notwithstanding.

A Christmas Carol has been a Trinity Rep staple for over 40 years, and every year returning audiences look forward to experiencing a new spin on a well-known tale. Alas, the overwhelming effect of this 2019 version was a nostalgic longing for the ghost of Christmases Past when the likes of the tremendously talented Timothy Crowe brought Scrooge to life in ways both credible and enchanting.  Let’s hope that A Christmas Carol 2020 will be longer on substance and shorter on showmanship. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/

‘A Christmas Carol’ – by Charles Dickens. Original Music by Richard Cumming; Directed by Kate Bergstrom; Music Direction by Michael Rice; Choreography by Taavon Gamble; Set Design by Patrick Lynch; Costume Design by Olivera Gajic; Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels; Sound Design by Broken Chord. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St., Providence through December 29.

ArtsEmerson’s One-of-A-Kind ‘An Iliad’ Is Not to Be Missed

Denis O’Hare in ArtsEmerson’s ‘An Iliad’ – Photo by Joan Marcus

By Shelley A. Sackett

“An Iliad,” the brilliant play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare in a lamentably short run at Emerson Paramount Center, is one phenomenal piece of theater. In a mere 100 minutes, on a simple stage with no props or costume changes, the virtuoso Denis O’Hare (with the help of bassist Eleonore Oppenheim) magically creates the story behind Homer’s epic poem about the tragic Trojan War. This is no ordinary dramatic experience. It is a magic carpet ride into the deepest power and charm that theater can offer. No wonder the painted muses above the magnificently renovated stage are all smiles. They know this audience is in for a one-of-a kind experience that will resonate long after their thunderous standing ovation finally fades.

As the house lights slowly dim, a near-deafening clang arises from a stage stacked with chairs. One beacon illuminates the narrator, clad in a Sam Spade-like trench coat and hat and carrying a suitcase. It’s as if he emerges from the belly of some post-apocalyptic landscape. He approaches the audience and with an intimacy and rapport that marks the entire production, he speaks directly to them. With a sorrowful weariness he says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.” He has been singing this same story for millennia: in Mycenae, in Babylon, in Gaul and now, in 21st century Boston. “It’s a good story,” he admits. That is the only understatement of the entire script. Peterson and O’Hare have written a firecracker version (hence, “An Iliad”) of Homer’s “Iliad” based on Robert Fagles’ renowned translation about the bloody story of the war between the Confederation of Greeks and Troy (located in Asia Minor or current Turkey).

In a nutshell, it all started when the Trojans stole Helen and ends with the Greeks getting her back (with a little help from that famed Trojan Horse). Along the way, we witness swords clattering, gods and goddesses interfering for malice and amusement, and several battles to the death. We also learn a lot of history and mythology (and, for the trained ear, a bit of classical Greek poetry). We meet Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, who has abducted Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s Trojan priests, and refuses to give her back. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, tries to no avail to persuade Agamemnon of his folly. Not until Apollo punishes the Greek armies with plagues does he finally relent and give her up. But no sooner is Apollo’s curse lifted than Agamemnon decides he deserves to be compensated for his sacrifice. That compensation is in the form of stealing Achilles’ concubine, a captured princess Achilles considers to be his bride.

Understandably, Achilles responds with epic rage and refuses to fight for Agamemnon and the Greek confederation. Without him, Agamemnon’s army is no match for the Trojans and their Achilles analog, Hector. After nine years of fruitless fighting, the Greeks are depressed and exhausted. “They’ve forgotten why they’re fighting. They just want to go home,” our narrator says. He pauses and solemnly faces the audience. “How do you know when it’s over?” he asks in a whisper.

The artistic depth and muscle of “An Iliad” lies in the way it connects ancient past to the political and linguistic vernacular of today. In a chatty, informal, almost stand-up-comic tone, the narrator compares the inability of the Greeks to give up and seek a truce to the exasperation and irrational stubbornness of someone who has waited for over 20 minutes in a supermarket line. “Do you switch lines now? No, goddam it, I’ve been here for 20 minutes, I’m gonna wait in this line. I’m not leaving ‘cause otherwise I’ve wasted my time,” the narrator says in a delivery reminiscent of the great Robin Williams, and suddenly the ancient Greek’s emotional dilemma is crystal clear.

Oppenheim’s music (how does she get all those sounds from a stand-up bass?) and Zeilinski’s dazzling lighting add enormous complexity and texture to the production as O’Hare stalks the bare stage, narrating the story, embodying his characters and time-traveling to the present to address his contemporary peers directly. He physically communicates the violence of war and the destruction it wreaks on the human body and psyche, embodying both Hector and Achilles in the play’s most wrenching scenes. With a bend of his nimble legs or a tilt of his head into a lone spotlight, he is magically transformed from Hector into his wife, Androcmache, in a tender scene where he credibly personifies and simultaneously embodies both.

The night belongs to this remarkably gifted and nimble actor, and those who miss it in Boston must make a New Year’s resolution to jump on a plane and catch its traveling production somewhere. It really is that good. For tickets and information, go to: https://artsemerson.org

‘An Iliad’ – Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare; Directed by Lisa Peterson; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Marina Draghici; Lighting Design by Scott Zeilinski; Composer/Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Produced by Arts Emerson and Homer’s Coat in association with Octopus Theatricals at Emerson Paramount Center through November 24.

SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Admissions’ Pierces the Veil of White Male Privilege

Nathan Malin, Maureen Keiller and Michael Kaye in SpeakEasy Stage’s Production of “Admissions.” (Maggie Hall Photography)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Joshua Harmon’s terrific new play “Admissions,” now making its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 30, packs a timely wallop. Set at and near Hillcrest, a toney progressive New Hampshire prep school, the plucky drama starts out poking fun at Sherri, Hillcrest’s white admissions director who is not happy with the draft of the Admissions Catalog she has just received.

It seems the catalog does not bear adequate witness to the milestone achievement of her 15-year tenure: tripling the diversity of Hillcrest’s predominantly white student body from 6% to 18% students “of color.” She knows this because she has counted all 52 pictures, and only three feature non-white faces. That is precisely 5.7%, and Sherri is livid. She has summoned Roberta, the veteran development officer responsible for the draft, to point out her glaring blunder.

Roberta is Sherri’s opposite. She is a frumpy, plain-spoken woman who calls a spade a spade. She is from another era, when personal qualities and merit mattered more than mathematical quotas. Roberta defiantly defends her work, pointing to a photo that features Perry, the son of a biracial teacher. “Perry’s black, isn’t he?” Roberta asks, confused. “Of course he is, but he doesn’t read black in this photo. He looks whiter than my son,” Sherri counters, exasperated. “I don’t see color. Maybe that’s my problem,” Roberta says.

Cheryl McMahon, Keiller

That exchange sets the stage for Harmon’s intelligent and riotous drama that exposes the raw nerve of hypocrisy among white people of privilege who hide behind political correctness, loudly trumpeting an abstract policy of affirmative action and diversity right up until the moment they are personally impacted by its application. Then, these same folks sing a “not in my backyard” refrain. They may talk the talk (and talk-and talk they do), but when push comes to shove, they would never walk the walk.

Sherri’s husband, Bill, is head of school at Hillcrest, where their 17-year-old high-achieving son, Charlie, is a student hoping to attend Yale with his best friend, the not-visually-black-enough Perry. Perry’s white mother, Ginnie, is Sherri’s best friend, neatly tying a bow that encircles and intertwines the play’s characters.

Ginnie and Sherri hang out a lot. Later that day, in Sherri’s kitchen, both sip white wine and wring their hands over their sons’ fates. Today is the day they will find out if they got into Yale. Harmon’s razor-sharp dialogue reveals the first cringe-worthy chinks in their personal moral codes. Ginnie has brought Charlie a cake from Martin’s Bakery, the same one she bought for Perry, despite evidence the baker is a pedophile. “What are you gonna do? His cakes are great,” she says with a shrug. Sherri shares her catalog fiasco, lying to Ginnie that she couldn’t use the picture of her son because it was blurry.

Marianna Bassham, Keiller

Ginnie receives “the” phone call first – Perry, whose application classified him as black, was accepted. When Charlie is deferred, the victim, he believes, of reverse discrimination, Harmon goes to town as Charlie’s parents’ liberalism and personal ambitions for their son collide. “How did I not see this coming,” Charlie wails, as he points an accusing finger at his parents, the architects of the very quota-driven system that denied him his due. “I don’t have any special boxes to check.”

Later in the intermission-less 105-minute production (no spoilers in this review), Harmon asks his audience the same question faced by Charlie’s horrified parents: what would you do if your child became a casualty of the system of ethics and fairness you champion? Would your moral True North shift?

“Admissions,” with its double-entendre title, captured both Drama Desk and Outer Circle awards for 2018 best play, and the SpeakEasy production is a bases-loaded home run with Nathan Malin (Charlie) as its runaway star. This 20-year-old Boston University College of Fine Arts junior brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have become a caricature in less capable hands. Cheryl McMahon is equally outstanding as the well-meaning and misunderstood Roberta and Maureen Keiller (Sherri) and Marianna Bassham(Ginnie) bring humor and humanity to their parts. Hopefully, Michael Kaye (Bill) has smoothed out the edges since press night.

Malin Keiller

Harmon, who’s “Bad Jews” took a whack at religious dogmatists, is gay and Jewish and knows a thing or two about life as a minority. “So much of what I think about revolves around questions of identity,” he said in an interview published in SpeakEasy’s program notes. “This play is trying to hold up a mirror to privilege and white liberalism, while remaining very conscious that this is just one narrow slice of a larger conversation.” For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

This review first appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

‘Admissions’ – Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Stage Managed by Stephen MacDonald. Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 30, 2019.

Two Decades Later, ‘Rent’ Is Still Going Strong

Cast of ‘Rent’ at Boch Center/Shubert

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Rent’ – Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson; Directed by Evan Ensign; Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements by Tim Weil; Choreography by Marlies Yearby; Scenic Design by Paul Clay; Costume Design by Angela Wendt; Lighting Design by Jonathan Spencer; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano. Produced by Work Light Productions at the Shubert Theatre – Boch Center through November 10, 2019.

Rent, the quintessential rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a full-throated revival at the Shubert Theatre – Boch Center. One of the longest-running shows on Broadway (it ran for 12 years), Rent garnered a shelf full of awards in 1996, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards.

The almost three-hour long production tells the tale of a group of young, penniless artists living in Lower Manhattan’s pre-gentrified East Village. They are determined to remain true to their Bohemian souls despite their struggles with HIV/AIDS, drug addiction and poverty. Their relationships to each other and to the “outside world” form the backbone of the plot. There are so many characters and moving parts, however, that it’s sometimes hard to keep straight who’s with whom. Fortunately, the music is the real star of the show, and after a while it’s easy to let go of the need to really follow every plot twist and just enjoy the powerhouse vocals.

Act I opens with the house lights still up. Whether this is artistically deliberate or merely indulgent of late comers, the effect is an immediate intimacy between the actors and the audience. We meet roommates Mark Cohen (Cody Jenkins), a filmmaker, and Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings), a songwriter and rock musician, on a cold Christmas Eve. Their former roommate Benny Coffin III (Juan Luis Espinal) has gone over to the dark side, marrying a rich girl from Westport whose father owns lots of real estate, including Mark and Roger’s building. Benny originally promised his buddies they didn’t have to worry about being behind in the rent. Now he has changed his tune, threatening to shut off the electricity if they don’t come up with last year’s rent. He also plans to evict the homeless from a nearby lot where he hopes to build a cyber arts studio.

Rounding out the gang are: Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks) a gay anarchist New York University professor; his cross-dressing drag queen lover, Angel Schunard (the spot-on, scene-stealing Joshua Tavares); and exotic dancer, neighbor and junkie Mimi Marquez (Aiyana Smash, whose acting and singing are a pleasure to behold).

“Rent,” the play’s namesake musical number, is the full company’s response to Benny’s demands. Compared to the pressure of trying to follow “Hamilton’s” lyrics, the song’s simple rhymes and high energy, uncomplicated score are a refreshing relief. Intellectually taxing this show is not.

Meanwhile, Mimi shows up at Roger’s apartment to ask him for a match to light her candle (Benny followed through on his threat to shut off the electricity), and to flirt with him. Their duet, “Light My Candle,” is one of the show’s stand out numbers, Cummings’ voice shadowing and showcasing Smash’s gorgeous pipes.

Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson (the spectacular Kelsee Sweigard) plans to stage a protest against Benny’s development plans. Her protest is really an over-the-top, avant garde cabaret act (“Over the Moon”), a funky rendition of the nursery rhyme, “Hey! Diddle Diddle.”  Sweigard, part Betty Boop innocence, part vamping torch singer, brings down the house. She is a real gem.

The protest turns into a riot when Benny retaliates by padlocking the apartment building where Mark and Roger live. Mark films the riot, which later leads to a corporate job at Buzzline, which he will eventually leave to follow his dream of making his own independent film.

Act II opens with “Rent’s” gorgeous signature song, “Seasons of Love,” which gives Rayla Garske and Benjamin H. Moore some well-deserved time in the vocal spotlight. The different couples and their coupling and uncoupling are closely followed: Roger and Mimi, Angel and Tom, Mark and his camera, and Maureen and her girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (Samantha Mbolekwa). Maureen and Joanne’s duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” is tailor made for Sweigard and Mbolekwa, and their performance is hands down the show’s finest.

Written in 1996, “Rent” is certainly dated and its momentum struggles because of it. Many of its lyrics are trite and the score, save a few real stars, is forgettable and, at times, boring and repetitive. Nonetheless, the play’s core messages are still relevant. The menacing specter of HIV/AIDS that hovers over all (and eventually claims Angel) is a reminder of all those lost to a disease that was ignored because the population most at risk was societally and economically marginalized. And, following ones dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles is as daunting today as 20 years ago.

Perhaps the most important message is found in the enviable camaraderie, compassion and shared happiness this group treasures. In “Your Eyes/Finale,” “Rent’s” last musical number, the entire company sings, “There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, No day but today.” No matter how little time they themselves have left, when these friends raise their glass in a toast to Angel’s untimely and unnecessary death, you can bet they nonetheless see their glasses as half full, not half empty. For tickets and more information, go to: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/rent-2019

Trayf is in Eye of the Beholder in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello) in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Hasidic teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel, the main characters of the New Repertory Theatre’s “Trayf,” are, at face value, typical 1990s adolescents. They love cruising around New York City in their brand-new van, blasting their favorite music and singing along at the top of their lungs. Their good-natured banter, conversational short cuts and puppy-like rapport reveal a chemistry borne of lifelong friendship. They talk about everything, from music to families to the riddle of sex. Any mother would be proud to claim them as her budding mensches.

Yet, on another level, Zalmy and Shmuel are anything but typical teens. They have never left their insular Crown Heights, Brooklyn community and Manhattan’s secular streets, bejeweled and beckoning with the forbidden (trayf), startle them. In their Chabad-Lubavitch (Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement) uniform of black hats, facial hair and black coats, they hardly blend in. The van they drive is a Mitzvah Tank, a makeshift synagogue-on-wheels with an ice cream truck-like banner that reads, “Mitzvahs on the Spot for People on the Go.” The music they adore is Hasidic pop/rock. These two are not trolling for babes. They have but one mission: to inspire Jews to do mitzvahs. “We’re the Rebbe’s foot soldiers going to battle in the most secular city in the world,” Shmuel solemnly declares.

New York based playwright Lindsay Joelle deftly uses this distinctive community and these two friends as the platform from which she launches her exploration of weighty themes such as commitment, identity, loyalty, tolerance and what being Jewish means (and doesn’t mean) in 21st century America. By nimbly plumbing Zalmy and Shmuel’s rich relationship, she keeps “Trayf” light, comedic and fluid while digging deeply beneath the surface.

During Zalmy’s (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel’s (David Picariello) chatty drives into the City, their individualiities surface. Shmuel is scandalized by Times Square; Zalmy is intrigued. Shmuel is devoted, resolved and unquestioning. His is a world of bright lines: black and white, kosher and trayf. Zalmy is more open-minded and daring; he can sense the gray of a possible middle ground, and it draws him in.

Swimmer, Picariello

Joelle carefully places this tinderbox of conflict beneath the teens’ friendship. Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), who approaches the Mitzvah Tank looking for “spiritual belonging,” is the flint that ignites it.

Jonathan is a young man who was raised Catholic. While cleaning out some of his father’s things after his recent death, he came across his birth certificate, showing his father emigrated from Germany and was, in fact, Jewish. Convinced that exploring these Jewish roots will fill the emptiness inside him, he is drawn to the Mitzvah Tank like a drowning man to a life boat.

Zalmy is happy to take Jonathan on as a student, especially after he learns he is a record producer and might be his conduit to secular musical delights. Shmuel is predictably skeptical. “He doesn’t feel like a Jew,” Shmuel says. “Why would anyone pretend to be Jewish?” Zalmy counters.

For the first time in their decades long friendship, Zalmy and Shmuel follow divergent paths. Zalmy takes Jonathan under his wing, bringing him home every week for Shabbos. “You’re so lucky, Zalmy. With your family I feel connected. I feel God,” Jonathan says. Zalmy is just happy to receive some of Jonathan’s secular trayf tapes.

Well into the intermission-less 80-minute production, Jonathan’s Jewish girlfriend Leah Caplan (Kimberly Gaughan) shows up, angry at her goyishe boyfriend’s makeover into a full-blown Chabadnik, hat, beard and all. The granddaughter of survivors, she “knows what it means to be Jewish” and has chosen a Catholic partner on purpose. She has also just courted him through an intense period of mourning and feels betrayed by his sudden change.

Picariello, Kimberly Gaughan as Leah

Leah seems to want more of a therapy session that an intervention from Shmuel, her need more to vent than to be soothed. Shmuel, however, sees a parallel with his relationship with Zalmy and his tone and body language suddenly shift and soften. He tries to comfort and calm her and to get her to see what he is only beginning to embrace and understand. “There is no love, only acts of love,” he tells her, quoting the Rebbe.

From here, the characters’ paths diverge, merge and change course in ways both predictable and surprising. Picariello and Swimmer bring a chemistry and effortlessness to their roles that is helped by Joelle’s character development and dialogue. She is not as successful with Jonathan and Leah. They are two-dimensional, cardboard props, more symbols than flesh and blood. Their role is one of foil rather than relatable people.

Celine Rosenthal’s direction keeps the play moving and her choice to put Zalmy and Shmuel as front and center as the script allows is a wise one. Grace Laubacher’s set is minimal but effective, the Mitzvah Tank its main focal point. The backdrop of a Manhattan skyline has a Marc Chagall shtetl feel, an acknowledgment to Crown Heights as a bridge between the Chabad’s Eastern European birthplace and its modern digs. Whether intentional or not, it’s a nice touch.

For Joelle, “Trayf” is the culmination of over five years’ research that started with her friendship with a former Chabadnik who shared with her how he had “dipped his toe into the secular world” until he finally broke from his roots and embraced a secular life.

She hopes the audience leaves wondering what each character will do next as they embark on their transformative journeys. “I’m most drawn to Shmuel’s newfound understanding that ‘acts of love’ include giving friends space to change and grow, and that true friendship transcends ideological beliefs,” she said.

A version of this review appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

“Trayf”. Written by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Scenic Design: Grace Laubacher. Lighting Design: Marcella Barbeau. Costume Design: Becca Jewett. Sound Design: Aubrey Dube. Stage Manager: Jenna Worden. Produced by New Repertory Theatre in partnership with Jewish Arts Collaborative, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through November 3.

 

Through the Looking Glass in “Nixon’s Nixon” at New Rep

by Shelley A. Sackett

Nixon

Jeremiah Kissel (right as Nixon) and Joel Colodner (as Kissinger) in ‘Nixon’s Nixon’ at the New Rep. ( Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

 

Like many baby boomers, I called in sick on August 8, 1974. My friends and I gathered in a sweltering unconditioned apartment outside steamy Philadelphia in front of a small black and white television. Arranged on a mattress on the floor, beverage and accoutrements in hand, we waited for the fulfillment of our hopes, the culmination of our dreams come true. The gongs sounded on from the FM radio softly playing in the background. At last, soon-to-be ex-President Nixon appeared strolling towards the helicopter that would whisk him off into political oblivion. An entire generation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

What we didn’t know was the historical backstory of what happened the night before.

Late on August 7, 1974, the night before he resigned, President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to join him in his favorite retreat, the cozy Lincoln Sitting Room. Republican senators informed him earlier that day that he would not survive an impeachment vote and Federal Judge John J. Sirica ordered him to turn over hundreds of hours of incriminating secretly taped recordings made in the White House.

Inspired by this historically factual meeting, “Nixon’s Nixon”, at the New Rep Theatre through October 6, tells Playwright Russell Lees’ version of what happened that storied evening in his intermission-less 90-minute play. Kissinger assumes Nixon is prepared to resign. He knows the inescapable political noose of impeachment and conviction is his boss’s only other option. But Kissinger assumes wrong. Instead, he walks in on an invigorated Nixon, intoxicated by brandy and denial, wildly dancing around to deafening classical music. “Americans like fighters. Underdogs. The scrappier the better,” the president croons, waving his brandy glass like a conductor’s baton. “That’s me now. I’m the underdog. Now I’m the guy to root for.” He insists his adoring public will someday embrace him as a hero, remembering his major successes (China, Russia) and forgetting his minor transgressions (Vietnam, Watergate).

Kissinger’s poker face melts and his body stiffens as he braces himself for what he realizes will be a bumpy ride. But the Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat also knows his fate hinges on successfully convincing the president to accept the inevitable and resign. Otherwise, Kissinger’s pursuit of his own geopolitical goals and quest for historical glory are in limbo at best and over at worst. He is not prepared to walk the impeachment plank to political oblivion. He will do whatever it takes to extricate himself from this sinking ship and, like a parasitic barnacle, attach himself to whatever will keep his political ambitions and projects afloat.

He lets Nixon lead him on a surreal journey reliving the top ten list of their association’s triumphs. The two world leaders play out the fantasy—Kissinger awkwardly pretends to be Chairman Mao and Brezhnev as a manic Nixon reenacts his moments of glory. It is an hour into the play before the word “resign” is even uttered aloud. Both care most about their legacy and how history will judge them. But even this prolonged gauzy delusion can’t hide the men’s distinct agendas.

 

Kissinger, impatient and manipulative, interrupts Nixon’s rants to coax him to put in a good word for him with Vice President Jerry Ford. “I can’t continue my work until you get out of the way,” he finally states. Nixon, who really just wants to be loved, isn’t giving in without a fight. He even beseeches God, whom he addresses on bent knees. “I feel like I should be asking forgiveness but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong,” he bemoans. “They gave me so much power. Why are they surprised I used it?” He relishes unnerving Kissinger by showing him a transcript from one of the tapes that would implicate Kissinger in criminal activity if the tape  were to be made public, which would only happen if Nixon didn’t resign. Even from his political death bed, Tricky Dick still has a few aces up his sleeve and he delights in tormenting his opponent by rubbing his nose in them.

As Nixon, Jeremiah Kissel is exhilarating and exhausting. He is all twitches and staccato gestures, one minute an overgrown child and the next a raving, paranoid fighter. Joel Colodner plays Kissinger as cool and conniving, an immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and ended up arguably more powerful than the president. A less compatible couple is hard to imagine.

And yet, the two have more in common than appears at first blush. Both worship at the altar of their legacies. Both are obsessed with how history will judge them. And both will stoop to anything to maintain the command they feel is rightfully theirs. They play off each other seamlessly, richly dancing a pas-de-deux that makes obvious their years as political bedfellows.

“It’s the great American story. Requited ambition,” Kissinger tells Nixon. “The son of a grocer and an immigrant boy rise to the highest levels of power and change the world.”

 

‘Nixon’s Nixon –Written by Russell Lees; Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by Aja Jackson; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill, Stage Manager- Heather Radovich. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, through October 6. For tickets and information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/

Fact, Fiction or Something in Between? ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ Asks But Doesn’t Provide Easy Answers

(Lindsay Crouse in Gloucester Stage Company’s ‘The Lifespan of a Fact – Photos by Jason Grow)

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Every so often, a play so resonates with its time that the audience can’t stop thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” at the Gloucester Stage Theatre through September 22, is such a work, and theatergoers should flock to see it for its thought-provoking, razor-sharp script and spot-on production.

The premise is simple enough. It is three days before a magazine’s publication deadline. Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), its ambitious and demanding editor-in-chief, has just received a cutting-edge story about a teenager who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas casino. She wants to bump the planned cover story (a humdrum piece about Congressional wives) and replace it with this for two reasons: to raise the prestigious but stodgy magazine’s profile (and boost sales) and to safeguard her job. First, however, it must undergo fact checking and there is only the weekend to do it.

Enter Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy, who really did just graduate from Harvard University), a young, equally ambitious intern and recent Harvard grad. He attacks his assignment like the future of journalism depends on it. His dogged tenacity would impress Sam Spade. Before long, he has amassed binders and exhibits that look more like a Perry Mason criminal trial notebook than fact checking for a 13-page essay.

(Mickey Solis, Crouse, Derek Speedy)

The ticking clock does not diminish Fingal’s resolve to dot every i and cross every t. His phone attempts to clear up inaccuracies with the author, John D’Agata (Mickey Solis) only get him a lecture on the difference between an “essay” (where D’Agata believes there’s wiggle room to alter the facts to fit the “rhythm” of the writing) and an “article” (which Fingal believes embodies the holy journalistic trinity of accuracy, truth and integrity).

D’Agata sees the world as gray. By calling his piece an essay, he assumes he has free rein to cast a wide net around the facts. “You have to stop treating me like a journalist. I am an essayist. I nudge the facts,” he declares. To Fingal, there is a bright line between black and white. Every discrepancy, no matter how trivial, is a journalistic capital offense. “I won’t alter the facts to fit some music you hear in your head,” he parries.

Penrose watches Fingal’s progress (or lack thereof) via a shared drive and her anxiety increases as the hours until publication decrease. When D’Agata calls her from his Las Vegas home to inform her that her fact-checker is asleep on his couch, she drops her laissez-faire attitude and catches the red eye out there to literally take these two bulls by their horns.

(Solis, Crouse)

By the time she arrives, the groundwork has been laid for the play’s second half, where the characters’ personalities, motives and principles clash. Their divergent positions about whether the piece as written should be published reflect the fault lines of their interests: creative freedom (D’Agata), commercial value (Penrose) and journalistic integrity/accuracy (Fingal). Their diatribes are thunderous and run the gamut from comic to passionate to preaching. These interchanges are the meat of the production and the questions raised is the stuff that will swirl long after the curtain has come down.

Is there such a creature, for example, as “creative fiction?” Where is the line between editing and fact-checking? Which dictates: story or accuracy? Does “not correct” equal “wrong?” What constitutes “good faith effort?” Are facts negotiable? Where do ethics come in? And editorial judgment? Is credible the same as true? Is there an acceptable margin of error in journalism? If so, what is it?

(Crouse, Speedy)

Weisman’s direction equally milks the comic and the profound and the set and sound lend a slick contemporary feel. The three actors remain in character throughout the 90-minute intermission-less performance. Speedy, as Fingal, quietly controls the pace as his nerdy fact-finder eventually bares his teeth and shows his nettle. His ease and grace on stage is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s nuanced performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Solis is all bristle and sinew as D’Agata, wildly and combatively confrontational.  Crouse, the weakest link among the trio, plays Penrose as strident but without depth. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and her character suffers credibility as a result.

At the play’s end, the trio may not have reached consensus about whether the essay should be published, but they have managed something that is sorely lacking in today’s polarized and venomous environment: they have listened to each other, they have understood each other, and they have respectfully agreed to disagree. What a concept.

‘The Lifespan of a Fact –Written by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; Directed by Sam Weisman; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Composer/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, Scenic Design by J. Michael Griggs. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through September 22.For tickets and information, visit: https://gloucesterstage.com/